Introduction from Woman Alone: A Six-Month Journey Through the Australian Outback
SOME YEARS AGO, I did something that most people, depending on their taste for risk, might consider daring, adventurous, or idiotic. I chucked everything to spend six months camping—alone, as a woman—in the Australian Outback. Sounds bold, maybe, unless you know that the life I had constructed stick by stick and day by day was empty. The college degree that suited my goals as a novelist left me unsuited to a wide range of income-producing options, so I had landed in a corporate job I utterly despised. My depression wasn’t clinical—I functioned well enough and held down a job and ate regularly and exercised—but I was anything except happy. Every morning I dragged myself into an office building where my peers viciously tore down the overweight woman on our team, invented horribly clever and horribly misogynistic nicknames for our boss (most of my peers were women), and gossiped endlessly about who was sleeping with whom and what that might mean for the woman’s career advancement (never the man’s). I lived in a basement apartment with so many health and safety violations that the police officer who arrived when my car was broken into offered to report my landlord. I declined because I would have been forced to find another place I could afford, a tall order in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. I had tons of friends and went out nearly every weekend but the bar scene and the punk rock scene and the all-night party/hookup scene and the hanging out at movie night getting stoned scene had grown stale even before I’d received my degree. I had already dedicated myself to becoming a writer but was too mentally exhausted to get much writing done. And that was the real problem. Because I wasn’t pursuing my true place in the world, the life I was leading—corporatized, industrialized, and in which everything I had ever been taught to want had been falsely glamorized—was killing me. Something had to be done. What, I wasn’t exactly sure. For a year, I reached out to my company’s London office. My father’s family is at least half Scotts-Irish, so the transfer would have opened up explorations into that side of my heritage. By the time the foreign office’s director made it clear—through a blunt, face-to-face conversation that materialized only because we both happened to arrive at the deserted Virginia office at six in the morning—that an offer would never be extended, my backup plan had already been funded with a fat savings account. The idea was to knock around in the UK until the money ran out. I hoped to be there for a year but the expenses made it much more likely I would only wander for six months. I would see the sights, visit the rolling countryside, and work on losing as much of my tan as any self-respecting UK citizen. Who knew what might arise during that time? Where might I land? I applied for a sabbatical and started packing. Anything I wouldn’t truly need when…if…I returned to the US was sold off or given away. The rest was stored in my parents’ basement. Even the car I had so lovingly restored, and into which I had sunk a feverish amount of money, was put up for sale. The Triumph was too temperamental to sit unattended for six hours let alone six months, so selling it was the best option. As the final sixty days ticked away, something bizarre and unsettling happened. Time and again, I was visited by vivid dreams of kangaroos and the red desert. Over the course of a few weeks, the images went from foggy to sharply intense. These dream-visions never came when I was deeply asleep. Instead they appeared like beautiful hallucinations whenever I was drowsing. Their gravitational pull caught at my heart. As I rose up out of each one, its threads and its images clung to me for minutes and then hours. Finally I surrendered. All right, already! I’ll go to Australia! I knew nothing about the country or what I might do there. But one thing was clear: this journey I had decided to take had always been about the Outback…even before I’d started dreaming. That was perfectly fine with me. I’d considered hiking through America’s largest national parks for a year but I really wanted to leave the country. Rather than walk the UK’s cliffs and moors, perhaps I could camp in the desert. No matter how I spent my time in Australia, though, something was waiting for me. Something had grown tired of waiting and was reaching out. I bought the ticket. The frenzied preparations that went with switching destinations began. My division head had already said the company would not guarantee that my position would be open when I returned. In my mind, there was no guarantee that I would return to that company or even to the US. With less than two weeks to go, I took a nap on the couch. As I drifted closer toward sleep, I fell into a vision of astonishing clarity. My spirit soared over red desert plains where a few stunted trees dotted the broad earth. I swooped down toward a lone tree with a twisted black trunk. Its thin canopy cast jagged shadows over a corpse. My corpse. I floated inches above it, peering at the face to be certain that it was me and that I was dead. A film of dust coated eyes that stared blankly at the sky. The shock jolted me awake. I sat for a long time thinking about how clear and detailed the vision had been. Was this a warning? I was twenty-seven years old. Any trip a woman undertakes alone involves risks, and wandering through undeveloped regions in a foreign country would entail dangers of which I was ignorant. This wasn’t supposed to be a suicide mission. Should I cancel the trip? In a way, though, I was already dead. Returning to the life I had been living was unthinkable. The depression that weighed me down, the sheer grind of sameness at my job, the poisonous gossip and the stretch of similar days would never end unless something was done...done by me, and done for me. I decided to go. Even if I died in the outback, for a few short months—and really for the first time in my life—I would have lived fully. I told no one about the vision. Too many opinions had already been proffered about my plans. My parents were of course worried but knew it was hopeless to try to dissuade me. My friends thought it was great while pointing out the homes, children, and responsibilities that prevented them from undertaking the same type of journey. My department head didn’t think I’d last more than two months before begging for my job back. Who would I tell? Halfway through the journey, I would find that lonely, twisted tree. The events that would take place there would threaten my life and be entirely out of my control…until, that is, I made a choice. A choice made by me. A choice made for me. That experience and my choice would change me forever. After finding that tree, the rest of my time in the Outback would be different. It would feel less compelling, as if marking that milepost had accomplished everything I’d come to achieve. Eventually I realized that it had marked the turning point I’d hoped to find. My life before that tree had been so flawed that the escape hatch had been hidden. Still I’d known, or my heart had known, that a new road would lead to more than just surviving in a salaried position, more than just getting through every day by keeping my head down and my mouth shut. Only a dramatic and dangerous event could reveal that road. Only facing death allowed me to choose life. Before I headed into the Outback, the many people who had confessed that they wanted to do something similar also said that their kids, their spouse, their mortgage, their whatever were insurmountable obstacles that prevented them from undertaking their own journeys. The truth is that they were also making a choice. They were bypassing one dream in order to pursue or maintain a different dream they valued more. Before my sabbatical, I purged nearly all my material possessions. That left the entire world open to possibility…even the possibility that my life would end. Not everyone can or should take such drastic steps. But people who allow other considerations to overshadow their dreams should let go of the vision or idea or concept that actually isn’t their dream. Stability, raising a family, and cultivating a life that’s filled with comfort and joy are all dreams that can be fulfilled…if the dreamers are willing to make conscious and informed choices. No matter what your dream looks like, my wish is that the book you’re holding right now provides the hope and inspiration to launch you onto your own path. In these pages, you’ll find the usual traveler’s stories brightly painted with the ways other people live. You’ll read some of my comments and hear the thoughts of others. Along the way, perhaps you’ll find an undiscovered part of yourself. Perhaps you’ll mark your own milestone. Turn the page with every hope for the person you can become.